November 12, 2020


Music for Horn and Electronics. Joshua Michal, horn. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Zack Stanton: Chamber Music. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Edward Smaldone: Chamber Music. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Edward Smaldone and Douglas Knehans: Chamber Music. Ablaze Records. $13.99 (2 CDs).

     There is a certain degree of self-limitation by contemporary composers where audiences are concerned. Electronic music, for example, has been around for nearly a century (the theremin was patented in 1928), but to this day, composers who announce that they are writing for electronic as well as acoustic instruments will be automatically tuned out by a significant element of potential listeners. The same is true for performers, no matter how skilled they may be. Thus, the new MSR Classics release featuring Joshua Michal on horn, mixed with electronics as employed by five different composers in works written in 2010 or later, will tend to suffer from the totality of the release being deemed “electronic music” and dismissed by those not inclined to listen to material of that sort. Yet the most interesting thing about the CD is how different the pieces sound, how differently they employ electronic accompaniment and/or enhancement, and therefore how different their effects are. Zero.Point, for Horn and Multi-Effects Pedal (2012), by Tyler Ogilvie (born 1983), has one of those off-putting “with-it” sorts of names, complete with a period between the first two words, but this is surprisingly accessible music in which the horn retains the rich, warm sound of which it is capable and is not, on the whole, overshadowed by anything electronically generated. On the other hand, Thunor’s Gate for Horn and Electronics (2010), by Mark Oliveiro (born 1983), contains far more of what non-fans of electronic music would expect: loud noises (whether to call them “music” is a matter of definition) and a series of squeals and squawks from the horn that often sound like the bellowing of a bull elephant. And this goes on for more than 11 minutes, more than twice the length of Ogilvie’s piece. Then there is Persistent Tracings for Horn, Violin and Electronics (2008) by Peter Van Zandt Lane (born 1985), its length midway between those of the Ogilvie and Oliveiro pieces, and its treatment of the horn largely in the middle, too – although here the violin (played by Allyson Michal) is used mostly as an electronic-sounds complement and a percussion instrument. The four-movement Music for Horn and Backing Track (2015) by Gordon Green (born 1960) shows a somewhat older composer looking for ways to incorporate electronic effects into an acoustic environment, and doing so by giving the horn its due in warmth and richness of sonority while allowing an accompaniment that extends, complements and sometimes is at odds with the horn sound. This work’s third and shortest movement, Dance, is especially striking and aurally interesting, while its concluding Song exists right on the knife-edge of lyricism. As a whole, this almost-16-minute suite is sufficiently varied to be genuinely interesting. This CD of world première recordings concludes with a single-movement work that is even longer than Green’s. It is Ekphrasis for Horn and Electronics (2015) by Salvatore Macchia, who was born in 1947 but is just as adept in his horn-and-electronics work as are the much younger composers represented on this disc. Ekphrasis is another of those abstruse titles often favored by contemporary composers, being intriguing or pseudo-intellectual depending on whether you like it or not. The Greek word refers to vivid detail in description, as when Homer in The Iliad spends 150 lines of poetry describing the shield of Achilles. Just how descriptive Macchia’s work is, and of what, is a matter of opinion, although certainly Michal’s horn playing and Jazer Gilles’ performance on electronics will be of interest to those inclined to pay attention to the mingling of disparate sounds for a considerably extended period. Nothing on this disc will change the view of listeners who simply dismiss electronic or electronically enhanced pieces out of hand, and the audience for the CD will certainly be a limited one. But the pieces that Michal plays have enough variety of approach and sound so that anyone with some level of interest in acoustic-plus-electronic music will find at least some material here worth exploring.

     Another MSR Classics disc of world première recordings of 21st-century works is devoted entirely to one composer, Zack Stanton (born 1983). Here listener interest will most likely come from hearing how Stanton employs differing instrumental combinations in four different chamber pieces. His Trio from 2016 is a three-movement work for horn (Anne-Marie Cherry), viola (Alexander Hettinga), and harp (Colleen Potter Thorburn). Hints of lyricism in the first movement give way in the second to one of those soundscapes that would sound “otherworldly” if they had not been created by so many other composers – and the finale, labeled Toccata-Fantasy, continues in much the same vein. This 21-minute work wears out its welcome fairly quickly, although the writing for the individual instruments shows a fair amount of skill – more than is shown in their intermingling. Stanton’s fondness for unusual instrumental combinations is next displayed in Stompin’ Grounds (2013) for clarinet (Sarunas Jankauskas) and double bass (Mark Foley) – about as unlikely a musical combination as will be found anywhere. The tonal contrast between the instruments is the main point here: the work is less effective when they play at the same time than when they hand material off to each other or play contrasting melodies in sequence. This piece differs in interesting ways from the next one on the disc, Echoes of Veiled Light for Percussion Trio (2009), performed by Matthew Teodori, Adam Bedell and Cullen Faulk. Listeners expecting something exuberant and declamatory will be surprised at the gentleness and quiet subtlety that suffuse much of this piece, giving it what is indeed a “veiled” sound and showing a side of percussion that is certainly different from the usual. The disc concludes with the most straightforwardly scored work on the CD, Imagined Conversations for Trumpet and Piano (2017), featuring Jesse Cook and Edward Neeman, respectively. This is a piece whose movement titles are, on the whole, fairly reflective of the musical content: Ponderous and Yearning, Still and Tender, and Frenetic and Exuberant. There is less sheer sonic exploration here than elsewhere on the disc, and not really enough rhythmic, thematic or aural variety to sustain for the work’s full 20 minutes. But the writing for both instruments is skillfully handled, and there are times, notably in the third movement, in which the contrasting sounds of trumpet and piano are put forth to very good effect. Nothing on this CD comes across as especially distinctive in terms of structure, harmony or rhythm, but Stanton shows in all these works that he has a good ear for differing sonic qualities and considerable ability to challenge players and audience alike without going so far as to be off-putting.

     The five pieces by Edward Smaldone (born 1956) on a new release from New Focus Recordings show a similar level of interest in varying sonorities and instrumentation. Cantare di Amore (2009) is for soprano (Tony Arnold), flute (Tara Helen O’Connor), and harp (June Han). The flute and harp interconnect with sensitivity in all three songs, although the “swooning” sounds of the flute can be distracting; the voice, singing in Italian, is set with welcome clarity and without overly strained or overstated sounds – indeed, its expressiveness is welcome in a contemporary work, although its tonal language is certainly modern. Double Duo (1987/2006) is for flute (O’Connor), clarinet (Charles Neidich), violin (Daniel Phillips), and cello (Marcy Rosen). As the title indicates, this single-movement work handles the instruments mostly in pairs rather than as a quartet. Its rhythmic angularity is effective enough, although it does not fully explore the auditory differences among the participants. Letters from Home (2000/2007/2014) is a set of six movements, the sixth a reprise of the first, written for soprano (Susan Narucki), flute and piccolo (Judith Mendenhall), clarinet and bass clarinet (Neidich), and piano (Donald Pirone). The letters’ topics are mundane ones of the modern world, although hearing matters such as taxes, graduation gifts and familial relationships given the art-song treatment gives the work a certain pleasant piquancy. Duke/Monk (2011), a duet for clarinet (Neidich) and piano (Morey Ritt), offers two movements in different styles (hence the expository title), the first slow and improvisational in feeling, the second more strongly ornamented in the clarinet and with a more-intense woodwind focus. This set of chamber pieces is capped by a work for string orchestra: Sinfonia (1986/2010), played by the Brno Philharmonic Strings conducted by Mikel Toms. This piece is something of a disappointment, without the level of creativity in the other offerings on the disc and with the usual stop-and-start feeling that contemporary composers often use (generally, as here, with limited success) to pull audiences in different emotional directions. As a whole, the CD offers a good portrait of Smaldone’s varying interests in instrumental and vocal contrast, and his particular skill at writing for, blending and contrasting woodwinds – both with and without the human voice.

     Additional Smaldone works are offered on one-half of a two-CD set from Ablaze Records, the other disc being devoted to music by Douglas Knehans (born 1957). The four Smaldone pieces here continue to show his skill with chamber ensembles and his interest in reimagining traditional combinations of instruments. Rituals: Sacred and Profane is for flute (Nave Graham), cello (Yijia Fang), and piano (Matthew Umphreys), and balances the roles of the three instruments carefully: none truly dominates, and all have opportunities to take the material in their own directions. Suite is a three-movement piece for violin (Scott Jackson) and piano (Umphreys). Its movements are suitably differentiated and, as usual for a work with this title, not strongly related to each other: the first, Impromptu, is in large part an extended solo violin cadenza; the second, Adagio, is indeed slow-paced but not especially emotive; the third, Stephane’s Dance, is angular and irregular, with the two instruments often sounding at cross-purposes as if the dancer is somewhat awkward, or perhaps trying too hard to impress. Three Scenes from the Heartland is for solo piano (Umphreys) and is well-constructed in an impressionistic sense, with a broadly flowing Introduction, a short and bouncily dissonant Scherzo, and a concluding Nocturne that is quiet and generally soft enough, if not particularly restful in light of its meandering tonal relationships. This is followed on the CD by Double Duo in a slightly quicker performance than the one from New Focus. Here the performers are Graham on flute, Mikey Arbulu on clarinet, Jackson on violin, and Fang on cello. It is interesting to compare the two readings: this one is brighter and more propulsive, with stronger emphasis on passages that take instruments to the extremes of their ranges; the New Focus one is broader and less concerned with highlighting the sonic differences among the instruments, with the result that it sounds more like an ensemble piece. As for the other Ablaze Records disc, it offers four Knehans pieces – two of which call for larger forces and some more-exotic instrumentation than anything here from Smaldone. These two Knehans works are Bang and Falling Air, the former for sextet and electronics, the latter for sextet and sheng. Both are conducted by William R. Langley; the ensemble includes flute (Graham), clarinet (Arbulu), percussion (David Abraham), piano (Umphreys), violin (Jackson), and cello (Fang), with Hu Jianbing on sheng in Falling Air. Each piece is an 11-minute-or-so exploration of tonal and instrumental contrasts, with Bang integrating the electronics into the ensemble as if the non-acoustic material turns the sextet into a septet, and with Falling Air doing something similar with the sheng – not so much drawing attention to the difference between its sound and that of the Western instruments as presenting it as a distinctive member of the group that is nevertheless part of the totality rather than primus inter pares. The motivic and rhythmic material in these works is less notable than their sound: they convey no particular message, but are intriguing explorations of varying sonorities. Knehans also shows on this release shows that he does not need a chamber ensemble to make his points: Temple, a work for solo flute (played by Graham), goes on almost as long as the sextets-plus (nearly nine minutes) but manages a thorough exploration of the flute’s moods and capabilities – without turning the instrument into a parody of itself. Temple does not quite sustain through its entire length, but it has many very interesting elements and will be particularly captivating for flute players. Also on this disc is Lumen, a three-movement work for cello (Fang) and piano (Umphreys) that is somewhat overly expansive (24 minutes) and somewhat overly lugubrious: movements labeled Yearning, Strained, Exhaustedly Expressive and Lentissimo-Grave frame a short central one called Spinning that provides some relief of tempo but none from the work’s rather strained emotionalism. On the basis of this recording, both Knehans and Smaldone are quite adept at writing for the various instruments they select, but neither uses those instruments to convey any particularly compelling or consistent message to a potential audience beyond the distinctly limited one that is interested in contemporary composition for its own sake.

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